Sebastian Haffner was a young lawyer in Germany in 1932. As a non-Jew, Haffner could have continued to further his career in the civil service. In describing the atmosphere in his country before the takeover by the Nazi dictatorship, he wrote that "the game dragged on tedious and gloomy, without high spots, without drama, without obvious decisive moments ... what was no longer to be found was pleasure in life, amiability, fun, understanding goodwill, generosity and a sense of humor .... The air in Germany had rapidly become suffocating."
Haffner chose to leave Germany. If he were to visit the neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv, Bnei Brak, Safed, Jerusalem or Bat Yam in late 2010, he would certainly recall those hard days in his homeland. He would find rabbis who sign racist manifestos against an ethnic minority and call for a policy of apartheid, fiery demonstrations against refugees from Africa, gangs of teens attacking Arabs, legislation promoting separatism and discrimination in racist and ethnic contexts, an oppressive public atmosphere, as well as violence and a lack of compassion toward people who are different and foreign.
Haffner would mainly warn against the anemic response of political institutions whose weakness and fears in 1933 led to a political reversal that could have been avoided. Of course, most Israelis do not see themselves as racist. The fact that half of Israel's Jewish population would not want to live next to Arabs is given various excuses, as is the popular and sweeping support of initiatives designed to keep Arabs or Africans from living alongside Jews. But only a few people who give those excuses would be willing to openly state that they support ethnic and racial separation.
The wild propagandists of the right like MK Michael Ben Ari (National Union ) do not hesitate to use imagery and explanations taken from the anti-Semitic lexicon of Europe: Foreigners spread disease and take Jewish women; black refugees are violent criminals who endanger public safety.
This horrific propaganda is terrifying poor population groups who are already living with an infinite number of problems of survival. And the people who espouse this propaganda are persuading themselves that keeping foreigners out and racial separation produce hope for a solution to their problems. The historian Saul Friedlander defined this mood in Germany of the 1930s as "redemptive anti-Semitism." A society in existential confusion lacking a political direction that gave it hope was swept up by an apocalyptic idea at whose heart was the need to keep Jews out; if not, the nation's existence would come to an end.
Millions of people in Germany who would not have defined themselves as anti-Semites and certainly not as Nazis were swept up in the messianic and pseudo-religious public atmosphere. Israel today is becoming slowly and increasingly swept up in "redemptive xenophobia." To an increasing number of Israelis, the Arab, the African refugee and people who are foreign in their religion, skin color or nationality are considered the most serious problem society has to solve on the road to tranquillity.
No society is immune to deterioration into violent racism. In the Israel of today, we can observe quite a few conditions whose presence in other societies and among other peoples led to racial separation, ethnic cleansing and even genocide. There are minority groups (Arabs and foreigners ) who are ostracized by the majority, a growing racist ideology, attempts to limit the political activities and civil rights of the minority, a tense security situation and strong political elements with vested interests in territorial expansion.
But this is not an edict from heaven. The task of responsible leadership is to stop this dangerous process. Benjamin Netanyahu frequently uses the imagery of 1938 regarding the international community's attitude toward the Iranian nuclear threat. Back then, at the last moment before the world descended into a horrific bloody war, the democratic powers could have stopped Hitler, but they stuttered.
Netanyahu must understand that the domestic reality in Israel today is 1932, and his pallid speech calling on people not to take the law into their own hands cannot extricate Israeli society from the xenophobic and intolerant atmosphere that has spread. For this, a move of an entirely different magnitude is required.
The writer is a Holocaust scholar and director of Hebrew University's Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry.
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